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Rhythm Gaming in 2012

13th February 2012; By KnucklesSonic8

As an optimistic sort, I'd like to think the worst is over for rhythm gaming, and that it's going to pick up this year. It's hard for me to admit, but I know as well as anyone else that rhythm games are becoming less and less common as the years go by. With all that has happened in the last ten years, I don't blame anyone for feeling despondent about the future of rhythm games. But is there a valid reason for hope as we move deeper into 2012? How did things even reach this point in the first place?

In discussing this subject, all eyes point to Activision straight away, as they really are the worst culprit here. Roping Harmonix into developing Guitar Hero had a fantastic turnout, as we all know. Guitar Hero has since seeped into popular culture, once being popular topics of discussion at schools and elsewhere. The crazy thing is just how hard they tried to keep the franchise going to the point that it became ridiculous just how many games they were releasing in a span of a little over five years. I really thought they crossed the line when they started to branch out and create Guitar Hero titles focused strictly on a music group like Aerosmith or Metallica. Not to be forgotten, too, is how much Guitar Hero's success influenced the development of Rock Band, turning the apparently magical formula into a much more socially-driven experience. Harmonix quickly turned the tables on accomplished names like Konami and made these two new franchises the most popular rhythm games of the decade. But could there have been a cost in the long haul that no one was really predicting?

Let's share the circle of blame for a second here. As Guitar Hero and Rock Band were starting to enter the decline stage of the product life cycle, Just Dance became the next new craze for rhythm gaming. Much like Harmonix's incredibly successful franchises, Just Dance influenced observant developers to create a like-natured dancing game of their own, recognizing that this is where this sector of gaming was going. From there, Ubisoft grew this simple project into something phenomenal, and we now have Just Dance 2, Just Dance 3, and there's even a version dedicated just for kids. From that early point, Ubisoft essentially became a leader in what was then a rising trend of dance-focused rhythm games, and there's no major evidence of all this slowing down in 2012 either.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, there's something important I want to bring up. Notice how Ubisoft, just like Harmonix, developed games with a strict focus on a particular person or group? I really didn't think Michael Jackson: The Experience was going to become anything else, especially since the game was essentially Just Dance with a new coat of paint. Sadly, I was wrong, and we now have additional dancing games where we can "experience" what it's like to be part of ABBA and The Black Eyed Peas. And now, there's a rumor circulating that Lady Gaga is next on the list to get Ubisoft's "Experience" treatment. This is just ridiculous! It's getting to a point know where Ubisoft needs to stop before they plunge this genre deeper into a soulless pit of contrived efforts and quickly-developed cash-in's. 

Given all that's been considered, does it surprise you that we're seeing fewer and fewer new faces in this sector of gaming? At least in terms of Nintendo platforms, it seems like developers are harbouring less faith in the idea of developing more console-bound rhythm games. Perhaps it has to do with the trends addressed above, or perhaps they just don't see the value in supporting a genre that, in their minds, is dying. Whatever the case may be, it is absolutely thrilling to see multiple new rhythm-based experiments in the works right now. Handheld rhythm games in the vein of titles like Elite Beat Agents seemed to be popping up quite a bit last year, and now that we have our feet set in 2012, I have moderate hopes that we'll continue to see more in the months ahead. Take a moment to consider three rhythm games currently in development for the 3DS that provide adequate reason for people like me to feel happy about where this genre is headed.

First up, releasing later this month is SEGA's Rhythm Thief & the Emperor's Treasure. There was a time when they were quite popular in this genre with the likes of Samba de Amigo and Space Channel 5, and it seems like Rhythm Thief will act almost like a nod to those older days. Besides the fact that some of the missions are directly influenced by those aforementioned titles, the simplicity of the gameplay, the situational circumstances players will be faced with, along with the overarching story of intrigue and mystery all seem like great components to the game. Thus far, everything I've seen looks a bit on the easy side, but I am definitely excited for this one. Who knows...maybe Rhythm Thief will actually build for itself a legacy like those other musical titles. Even if it doesn't, the game's attempts to combine multiple play styles seems like a positive step forward for the genre.

Another key rhythm game that's definitely one to watch is Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. To be quite honest, I find it very surprised that I'm even mentioning SQUARE ENIX in an article on rhythm games, but I'm nevertheless happy to see them trying something totally different this year. Focusing on timing-based attacks, Theatrhythm looks like a fun cross between RPG and rhythmic action elements. Some of the songs I've heard thus far sound orchestral, which in itself is an interesting approach since we don't see too much classical music being used in rhythm games these days. Thus far, I've only seen battles take place with team members standing on one end of the playing field, swiping at the oncoming icons as the enemy mostly stays in the same area. It'll be interesting to see if battles develop further as you get deeper and deeper into the game. Even if you're not a big fan of Final Fantasy, Theatrhythm is shaping up to be a modest-looking game that hopefully will get confirmed for North American release later this year.

I feel compelled to draw attention to another game that, at the moment, is only confirmed for release in Japan. Go ahead and make fun, but I think Hatsune Miku and Future Stars: Project Mirai (Project Mirai for short) looks absolutely adorable. In a guilty pleasure kind of way, this game looks like it could be a lot of fun. It appears that the focus with this title is button control, not touch, which seems like a nice change pace. The gameplay almost resembles the style seen in Natsume's Gabrielle's Ghostly Groove in a way, just much more visually attractive. Again, leave it up to SEGA to come up with something unconventional. Whether or not this game will actually have innovative roots remains to be seen, but here's hoping SEGA has enough confidence in it to bring it our way. I know chances are pretty slim, but stranger things have happened. (Muscle March, anyone?)

So what do you think? Could we see rhythm games making a comeback in 2012? Personally, I think that's very hard to say. For one, it doesn't seem like we have a lot to look forward to on the immediate horizon in terms of console-based experiences. However, here's something to consider: Could the Wii U bring about new and exciting rhythm-based concepts? I'd hesitate to see how Nintendo would take a stab at this given how panned Wii Music was, which is why I'm much more interested to see new ideas come from third-party developers. If there's a strong rhythm game out of the gate, that would surely serve as a strong stimulus for other developers to take a crack at it. Just look at how many fans Elebits got since the Wii launched. But anyway, enough speculation.

What we do know is that multiple developers have signed up to develop rhythm-based games for the 3DS, and this is where we should be focusing our attention on. Immersion and player interaction are two keys that could certainly be implemented with these and other new concepts. I used this as an example quite a bit last year, but just look at Dream Trigger 3D. While it didn't come together terribly well, it certainly came close to capturing that feeling of immersion that the 3DS affords, principally through implementation of the 3D Slider to enhance visual depth. Could we see others using the 3DS' features in a fuller capacity to create immersive, musical experiences?

Despite the fact that rhythm gaming has been lacking in a number of areas lately (with creativity being one of them), I eagerly look forward to seeing more worthwhile endeavours in this genre this year -- whether that be on consoles or handhelds. Or perhaps I'm just dying to see the industry focus a lot less on dancing games. In any event, here's looking at a better year for rhythm games in 2012.

Feature by KnucklesSonic8